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The Uncertain Future of the Northern Pass

MOUNTAINS_NH_CaravelloBy Ted Hamilton — Dec. 3, 2013 at 12:11pm

With the recent announcements that the Vermont Nuclear Power Station will go off-line next year and that Brayton Point, the region’s large coal plant, is ceasing operations by 2017, the face of New England energy is going through a rapid transformation. As environmentalists call for a greener grid and policymakers search for new sources to meet their states’ energy demands, ISO-New England, the regional grid operator, estimates the area will need an additional 6,000 megawatts of electricity within a decade.

One possible solution? An ambitious plan to transmit 1,200 megawatts of dam-generated electricity from Quebec to New Hampshire.

The Northern Pass, a joint venture between Northeast Utilities, NSTAR, and the public Canadian utility Hydro-Quebec, was proposed in 2008 as a way to bring cheap, clean energy to New England. The project calls for 187 miles of transmission lines to be built from the Canadian border to southern New Hampshire, with the electricity eventually finding its way to the heavily populated metropolitan areas of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Proponents see the Northern Pass as a one-size-fits-all solution, offering reliable, inexpensive energy that’s cleaner than fossil fuels and safer than nuclear power.

But the Northern Pass has run into fierce opposition from many sides, leaving the ultimate fate of the project in doubt. The increasingly rancorous debate over the plan has centered around some of the most vexing problems facing environmental law today: the conflicting demands of conservation and energy production, the true costs of “clean” energy, and the proper role of state and federal regulators in designing the energy regimes of the future.

The most controversial aspect of the proposed project is the feared impact of the Northern Pass on the natural beauty of the White Mountains and surrounding areas. The project’s transmission lines would require rights-of-way hundreds of feet wide to accommodate towers up to 155 feet tall, and would be visible from miles away. Many conservation and recreation groups, such as the Appalachian Mountain Club, have warned that these towers would permanently scar New Hampshire’s wilderness, damaging both local ecosystems and a thriving tourist industry. Critics estimate that at least 40 miles of new transmission corridors would need to be built to run power through the state.

In this atmosphere of increasing indecision over the Northern Pass’s ultimate shape, federal regulators have gone forward with the permitting and approval processes. Because the transmission lines would cross an international border, the utilities must seek a special presidential permit from the Department of Energy. The DoE will consider how the project affects “the public interest,” and must also prepare an Environmental Impact Statement, to be released sometime in 2014 in draft form for public hearing and comment. A decision on the permit is not expected for at least two years. The Northern Pass must also pass regulatory hurdles from an array of other federal and state agencies. These concerns have led to growing calls to bury the lines. While the utilities maintain such a project would be prohibitively expensive, New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan made headlines in September by urging the utilities to explore this option more seriously.

Another point of contention is just how clean the Northern Pass’ hydroelectricity would be. A 2012 report by Synapse Energy Economics suggested that the reservoirs that Hydro-Quebec creates to power its dams release greenhouse gases at a rate equivalent to two-thirds of a typical natural gas power plant’s emissions, and that utilities have typically underestimated the carbon dioxide and methane released by decomposing organic matter trapped under the reservoirs. Groups like the Conservation Law Foundation have pointed out that many New England states may attempt to use Northern Pass hydropower as part of their Renewable Portfolio Standards, relieving them of the obligation to seek equivalent power from other, greener sources. The massive influx of Canadian hydroelectricity would not only be dirtier than previously assumed, critics argue, but would also cripple New England’s budding renewable energy sector by undercutting the competitive advantage of smaller utilities producing wind, solar, or tidal power.

What began, then, as an emblematic solution to a set of typically twenty-first century energy problems has morphed into a hard-fought, intensely political battle over how best to balance environmental protection with energy security and local concerns with regional demands. As policymakers at the state and federal levels attempt to wade through the competing interests and contradictory predictions surrounding the Northern Pass, stakeholders will continue to disagree over whose concerns are paramount. The coming months and years will offer a test case for how — or how not — to build the next generation’s grid.

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8 Comments

  1. Nancy MartlandDecember 3, 2013 at 12:41 pmReply

    This thoughtful treatment of the Northern Pass Transmission Project omits one key point. Technology that reduces long-line transmission impact to near-zero is available. It is practical and cost effective. Buried lines do not scar the landscape. Developers in New York, Vermont, Maine, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and many other locations are opting to avoid fierce public resistance by using advanced HVDC Light cable for practical underground or underwater applications. Northern Pass has failed to even consider this approach. The 21st century grid should include green transmission as well as green energy generation. There is no need to force antiquated, ugly technology on any locality.

    • Harvard Environmental Law ReviewDecember 3, 2013 at 2:14 pmReplyAuthor

      Thank you for your insightful comment. A reference to underground technology was removed during the editing process but has been re-inserted into the post. We greatly appreciate your taking the time to comment and make readers and the ELR staff aware of important aspects of this issue.

  2. Susan SchibanoffDecember 3, 2013 at 2:00 pmReply

    The author would do well to sudy and make reference to the following three nearby projects, one in NY, one in VT, one in ME, that all use underground technology to import hydro- or wind power and are in various states of development: Champlain Hudson Power Express, New England Clean Power Link, Northeast Energy Link. The first and second are Blackstone – TDI projects. These are sharp, smart, forward-looking projects, and it behooves you to report upon them to your readers in an article like this, else you have not done your reporting job fully. Either/or makes for a more dramatic rhetorical structure – and the developer would prefer this high stakes approach – but for a convincing piece of academic journalism, you really should include the third way that evokes so much interest and comment in NH.

    • Harvard Environmental Law ReviewDecember 3, 2013 at 2:14 pmReplyAuthor

      Thank you for your insightful comment. A reference to underground technology was removed during the editing process but has been re-inserted into the post. We greatly appreciate your taking the time to comment and make readers and the ELR staff aware of important aspects of this issue.

  3. Kris PastorizaDecember 3, 2013 at 6:54 pmReply

    Northern Pass is not “an emblematic solution to a set of typically twenty-first century energy problems”. Northern Pass is a poorly conceived plan for corporate profit.
    Hydro-Quebec and Northeast Utilities are amoral entities and care nothing about finding solutions to humanity’s problems, especially not the huge problem of our gluttonous consumption of their product.

  4. Nancy MartlandDecember 4, 2013 at 10:15 amReply

    Thanks for your quick response and added mention of the burial option in this article. Your presentation would be further improved by making it very clear that this option is not pie-in-the-sky, as demonstrated by the ever-growing number of proposals right here in the northeast that incorporate HVDC Light underground technology. Despite what Northern Pass/Northeast Utilities claims. In fact, their partner, Hydro Quebec is an advocate, supplier, and installer of underground long-line transmission facilities around the globe. At present, Northeast Utilities is asking New Hampshire to fall on the sword of 20th century technology so that folks in CT can run their air conditioners without guilt. Ain’t gonna happen.

  5. Rebecca W. S. MoreDecember 4, 2013 at 11:44 amReply

    Thank you for taking the time to direct attention to the problems which the Northern Pass project in NH has caused for many citizens and environmental agencies across New England concerned about how to “balance environmental protection with energy security and local concerns with regional demands.” Your blog might consider that part of the issue is the specific company behind the proposal, Northeast Utilities. The refusal by Northeast Utilities/ Northern Pass to consider the burial along existing transportation corridors suggests that they are a poorly-run, short-term profit company that will not do a good job on any level. Burial is sensible long-term investment which will pay dividends in the future and is, therefore, Good Business practice. In parts of Rhode Island the electric power lines were buried about 50 years ago – with the result that only once (1x) in 50 years has there been loos of power. That has saved the local electricity supplier on repair costs and the community on loss of business. If Northern Pass were a well-run business, they would respond positively to the proposal to bury the lines. The evidence suggests that they are not, in fact, a business with the long-term benefits in mind. This profile contributes to lack of trust in the Northern Pass or its parent company Northeast Utilities. Caveat Stockholders!

  6. Maine Wind ConcernsJanuary 5, 2014 at 12:58 pmReply

    ME Gov. LePage has been adamant about “lifting the 100 MW cap on Canadian hydro.” It is true Maine has no need to do it, as we have plenty of electricity and it is some of the cleanest in the nation. But as long as Maine and other New England states continue to issue renewable energy credits (sometimes worth more per kWh than the electricity itself) for wind power but not for bona fide kinds of renewables, then lifting the 100 mw cap could help. It could encourage MA, RI, CT legislatures to lift THEIR caps, effectively eliminating the assault on Maine’s mountains by wind speculators.

    Northern Pass would be in business, providing high quality electricity to the New England grid, in significant quantity. To the NIMBYs who don’t want a single 100′ tall transmission line carrying 1200 mw of hydro: try looking at 2000 wind turbines, 500′ tall, on mountaintops, carrying low quality wind power. Try paying for them too.

    What do we mean by low quality or high quality?
    Big hydro from Quebec and Newfoundland does not burn fuel.
    It is available in quantity sufficient to meet government-imposed mandates.
    Its physical characteristic of dispatchability makes it capable of displacing and even replacing some or all of the 8000 mw of base load and peak load generation plants that New England could lose soon.

    Those few old coal and oil plants represent over 30% of New England generation capacity, yet last year they actually generated only 4% of New England electricity (less than 1% in Maine). They are, however, invaluable on the hottest and coldest weekdays. So even though they are used about as much as mom’s good silver, there are a few days per year when they are absolutely necessary. (At least until we can fix the natural gas bottleneck between New York and New England.)

    To the extent that New England needs new electricity generation, it needs electricity that:

    - is green, to satisfy renewable mandates and to use up renewable energy credits

    - is dispatchable, to satisfy peak load, base load, and load balancing needs, replacing the last old coal & oil plants

    - is reasonably and stably priced, including its transmission costs, to avoid economic disruption

    - is available in significant quantity, with low physical footprint/impact

    The idealists and economy deniers can continue wasting our money and our mountains on billions of dollars worth of windmills, but the only one of the above positives that wind can bring is #1. But for what? Wind cannot replace or even displace conventional generation, so its emissions benefits are negligible, particularly in such a very clean CO2 state/region.

    If NH doesn’t want Northern Pass, Governor LePage should be over there trading our pile of useless windmills for their essential power line. Pronto.

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